If any executive deserves to take a breather, it's Larry Pollock. As boss of Canadian Western Bank for 23 years, he built the Edmonton-based upstart into a force west of the Great Lakes, and he never suffered a losing quarter. But his biggest dream remained unfulfilled: to merge CWB with provincial-government-owned Alberta Treasury Branches to create a powerhouse that could compete with the eastern banking behemoths. Although the 66-year-old Pollock stepped down as CEO in March, and spent some time at his vacation home in Palm Springs, he still wants to follow that dream.
Why leave the bank now?
You've got to pick the right time to step out of a role. I had a great successor [his protégé Chris Fowler], and the bank has never been in better shape—we've come off a record year. The only thing that bothers me a lot is the relatively low stock valuation that the market gives to banks, including ours.
Didn't you get bored at times over 23 years?
If I came in on any day and felt a little bored, I figured out what to do to change that. Over the years, we've made a number of acquisitions and had this strategy of not combining them with our existing businesses. They are all separate and accountable, and the people who run them have total control over what is going on, within reason. We've fostered a culture where people can become as good as they ever can, and without this lobbying and politicking to get the top job. There were several top jobs—as, say, president of leasing, or insurance or trust companies.
Did you lose good people who aspired to your job as CEO?
As long as you kept them challenged, they stayed engaged. We were a bunch of rogues and misfits at one time who cobbled ourselves together into a pretty formidable team—and the team is still together.
Even with all your growth, was it disappointing not to land a merger with ATB?
Look at what we've accomplished. We're the only new bank of any scale in Canada. We're just 29 years old and we really didn't start to grow till the mid-1990s. So the next step is to build a larger western bank that would be part of the Big Seven in Canada, or the Big Six, or whatever. I still have this vision of putting together ATB, CWB and maybe some of the big credit unions. The largest credit unions are based in Western Canada, and now they are allowed to go under federal regulations and the Canada Deposit Insurance Corp.
Are you the guy to lead this?
Now that I am not a director or officer of a bank, I'm free to follow through on some of these ideas.
What would be the economic rationale for creating a bigger western bank?
I think the Alberta government would love to find a way to use ATB as a catalyst to start that major institution. You put two or three of us together and, all of a sudden, you have something that could lead a syndicated loan of $300-million to $500-million for one of the oil and gas companies in Calgary. You wouldn't have to go hat in hand to Toronto or New York. I hope to live long enough to see that.
So what role would you play in the transition?
Maybe as an adviser or consultant, or as a facilitator. Remember that banking is a very sensitive business. You're looking after people's money. When making a loan, you should be envisioning your grandfather and grandmother standing and holding hands at the front counter as they deposit their life savings. Now you're going to lend that money out. Because of that philosophy, CWB has had the lowest loan losses in the industry for over 20 years.
You speak in the present, as if you're still a bank CEO. Are you going to take to retirement well?
No, I'm not. I have been offered the chance to join boards of three large banks in Europe and the U.S., but I just want to collect my thoughts now. Maybe there is something else I can do to help Western Canada, and Canada, more than I could by tootling off to some other country and putzing around there. But I don't want to have to get up in the morning and have to be somewhere. I'd rather sit and stare at the mountains here in Palm Springs and try to think up some new scheme.